KIJHL: Leafs survive Braves’ comeback bid in home-opener

Kolten Nelson scored twice as Nelson beat Spokane 5-4 on Friday.

Leafs forward Sam Weber chases down a rebound during Nelson's home-opener against Spokane on Friday.

They looked spectacular until they didn’t. It was all working until it wasn’t. And when it was over, a game that started as a statement became a learning experience for the Nelson Leafs.

The Leafs came out firing in their home-opener Friday night, but ended the night feeling like they got away with one.

“We got ahead of ourselves,” said Kolten Nelson, who scored twice as the Leafs survived a 5-4 win against the Spokane Braves.

“We were all looking ahead to the end of the game. You’re up 4-1 or whatever it was, it’s easy to just look at the finished product but you just gotta make sure you keep putting in the work and not cheat on stuff, which we were doing.”

Eamon Miller, Sawyer Hunt and Sam Weber also scored for the Leafs (2-1-0), while Jason Sandhu stopped 25 shots in net.

Trail Thompson scored twice while Greg Lind and Blake Halfpenny also replied for the Braves (1-2-0). Blake Norman, for his part, made 33 saves.

Nelson held a 3-0 advantage in the first intermission and were up 4-1 heading into the third period. The collapse actually started in the second after Braves forward Carter Jones checked a Leafs player into the boards from behind.

That started a melee, which ended with several players on the ice and a delay as refs sorted out the mess. Jones ended up being served a game misconduct, but the hit rattled the Leafs.

They weren’t the same after, and when more confrontations occurred in the third the Braves capitalized by scoring on back-to-back breakaways to put a scare into the home team.

“It seemed to me like Spokane started to get under our skin,” said assistant coach Sean Dooley. “There was more talking to their bench, players over the boards chirping at guys and that’s when you’re in trouble. When you’re worrying more about what they’re bench is doing and not what our bench is doing, or what we need to do to succeed, that’s when you run into trouble and I think that’s exactly what happened.”

It also erased all the positive play of the first period, keyed by a tremendous first line of Miller, Hunt and David Lenzin. The trio only started playing together last week, but look as though they’ll stick for the remainder of the campaign.

“I think all our games just match up,” said Hunt. “We all play a little differently but they come together to work.”

Tic-tac-toe passing from that top line on the power play led to the Leafs’ first goal 11 minutes into regulation. Miller was in front of the net to finish off a nice play to give Nelson a 1-0 lead.

Miller was dangerous in the first. He nearly scored again on a sweet deke that left room for a wrister in front of the net, but what looked like a sure goal was denied by the post.

That missed opportunity was made moot shortly after by another promising line of Andy Fitzpatrick, Kolten Nelson and Dale Howell.

Fitzpatrick came out on top of a battle for the puck along the boards in the Spokane zone and wired a cross-ice pass to Kolten Nelson, who had been ignored by the opposing defence. He went top corner on Norman to pad the Leafs’ lead.

“They’re just really good linemates,” said Nelson. “We’ve been playing together since the start of camp. It seemed to gel nicely and we know where each other are.”

Sandhu stole the spotlight a minute after Nelson’s goal with several saves in a row on a rare early moment in which the Braves’ offence showed some pressure. The Leafs then responded with Hunt’s first hometown goal. He collected a feed from Miller in front of the net and went low on Norman for the 3-0 lead.

Kolten Nelson benefited from yet another empty net for his second goal of the evening five minutes into the second period. Norman was caught behind his own net as he tried to gather the puck, only for it to be stolen by Howell. He slipped the puck to Nelson, who could have scored blindfolded from where he was positioned.

That goal may have been the last straw for Spokane. Jones made his aforementioned check from behind and less than a minute later the Braves were on the scoreboard when Lind deflected a point shot past Sandhu.

The remainder of the period played out without incident, but the Braves had given the Leafs something to think about heading into the second intermission.

“Once we got up 4-1 it seemed like, okay, now it’s point time. I’m going to try to make these highlight-reel plays and it just strayed away from the game plan,” said Dooley. “And kudos to [Spokane.] I actually said it to their coach in the second period. I said, ‘Hey, that second period was neck and neck, let’s see what happens in the third.’ And you saw what happened. Consistently putting together 60 minutes of hockey is something we’re going to have to do.”

It was actually the Leafs who struck first after the break. Five minutes into the third, Weber whipped a cross-ice pass from 16-year-old rookie Ryan Piva on another goal where Norman was let down by the Braves’ defence.

Yet another confrontation developed after Leafs defenceman Spencer Selby sprayed some ice in Norman’s face. Selby was sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct, but the Braves’ advantage lasted only moments when their power-play was nullified by more rough-housing this time in front of Sandhu.

Spokane took advantage of the 4-on-4 play. Halfpenny broke out on a long pass and beat Sandhu over his glove. Seconds later, yet another breakaway resulted in yet another Braves goal. Thompson’s route was similar to Halfpenny’s, and finished with a goal that cut Nelson’s once healthy lead to just two goals with seven minutes left.

Leafs defenceman Austin Steger replied with a breakaway of his own but wasn’t able to complete the effort.

Thompson slipped his second of the period past Sandhu’s pads on a soft goal with just five seconds left on the clock. That shook the Leafs but didn’t leave enough time for the Braves to complete their unlikely comeback.

Leaflets: The Leafs next visit the Castlegar Rebels on Saturday. … F Levi Hulston won’t be back this season. He’s moved up to Junior A by signing with the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen. … Half the arena was empty, but not for lack of tickets sold. Repairs to the Nelson and District Community Complex’s cardio room meant machines were in use around half the concourse, which restricted where fans could sit.

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